Psychopaths in Suits

Terrance Heath

Back in 2009, I asked “What’s Wrong With Wall Street?”, and then spent three posts answering that question.

In my daily perusal of economic news, I have found myself more than once staring my computer monitor in open-mouthed wonder, occasionally exclaiming, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” or “What’s wrong with these people?”,or something like that. To do what they’ve been doing, you’d either have to not be paying attention to what’s going on or just not care.

In their case, it’s a little of both. And it’s diagnosable, if not treatable.

How else do you explain the utterly mystifying payment of $18.4 billion in bonuses to some 80% of Wall Street employees including employees of firms being bailed out by taxpayers, who are due to shell out another $350 billion? And even as Americans are losing their jobs and their homes, in the midst of a financial crisis largely brought on by the financial sectors arcane shenanigans?

I even offered my own diagnosis as an armchair shrink.

Being married to a psychiatrist, there just happened to be a copy of the DSM IV in the house. I grabbed it and, on a hunch, turned to the section on personality disorders, where antisocial personality disorder caught my eye first.

Definition

Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a lack of regard for the moral or legal standards in the local culture. There is a marked inability to get along with others or abide by societal rules. Individuals with this disorder are sometimes called psychopaths or sociopaths.

Diagnostic Criteria ( DSM-IV�� ) made easy.

1. Since the age of fifteen there has been a disregard for and violation of the right’s of others, those right’s considered normal by the local culture, as indicated by at least three of the following:

A. Repeated acts that could lead to arrest.

B. Conning for pleasure or profit, repeated lying, or the use of aliases.

C. Failure to plan ahead or being impulsive.

D. Repeated assaults on others.

E. Reckless when it comes to their or others safety.

F. Poor work behavior or failure to honor financial obligations.

G. Rationalizing the pain they inflict on others.

2. At least eighteen years in age.

3. Evidence of a Conduct Disorder, with its onset before the age of fifteen.

4. Symptoms not due to another mental disorder.

I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist but a year ago a freelance writing project required me to do a lot of research on serial killers; perhaps the best and most extreme examples of sociopathy so at best, this is an armchair diagnosis, but it’s not that far off. Think about it. Repeated acts that could lead to arrest? Well, Fuld has been subpoenaed. Then there was the arrests of two former Bear Stearns executives, and the arrests of more than 400 real estates brokers on fraud charges.

Conning for pleasure and profit? Well, isn’t that the very definition of how business was apparently done on Wall Street before house of cards finally collapsed? Failure to plan ahead? Well, isn’t that the definition of Ponzi schemers who have to know that the house of cards will fall, but who don’t let it stop them from scheming? Reckless with other people’s safety? Well, how many people lost jobs, homes, pensions and any semblance of economic security as a result of the economic downturn? 

I’m no doctor, but this article from the San Francisco Chronicle seems to confirm my earlier diagnosis.

jump-you-fuckersIt took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along: The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

How do people with such obvious personality flaws make it to the top of seemingly successful corporations? Boddy says psychopaths take advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.” Such circumstances allow them to ascend through a combination of “charm” and “charisma,” which makes “their behavior invisible” and “makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.”

What? You didn’t expect the realy “Menace to Society” to be dressed in a Brooks Brother’s suit? That’s part of what they count on. We expect our psychopaths to look more like this.

Instead of looking like this.

You don’t have to be a serial killer — or even look like one — to be a psychopath. Some of the most successful psychopaths exploit that expectation so well that they can work right next us, and remain undetected.

Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is a serial killer. Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is in prison. Not everyone with the traits of a sociopath is autistic or psychotic.

One can have enough empathy to refrain from homicide, but not enough empathy to refrain from fraud or political callousness that causes harm to many thousands of people.

So if you want to understand how someone can run the huge scam that was Enron, or how someone can rip $50 billion out of the pockets of charities and people, many of whom are “friends,” or how some people can be callous about a torture called water-boarding (a “no-brainer,” he said), or offer nothing but a shrug when reminded they have caused the death of thousands–if you want to understand the dynamics of these behaviors it might help to remember the continuum that runs from ordinary people with empathy to people with no empathy at all.

It seems that’s the real America. Or is it? These days it seems we’re living in a society that’s a candy store for sociopaths and almost-sociopaths and wannabe-sociopaths.

Factor in the volatility and chaos that reigned on Wall Street, combined with the lack of regulation, and it’s the prefect breeding ground. As Boddy points out, a stable environment would mean that corporate psychopaths would be “noticeable and identifiable as undesirable managers because of their selfish egotistical personalities and other ethical defects.” But in the chaos of Wall Street, corporate psychopaths “made their way to corner offices of important financial institutions.” then the real trouble started when they wielded considerable power, which allowed them to “influence the moral climate of the whole organization.”

And now that they can pour unlimited money into political campaigns — and thus buy even more politicians, and perhaps even a controlling share in our democracy — they may yet influence the moral climate of the whole country.

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